Do you think you are more moral than most people?
My guess is that most readers will answer “yes”.
Why? Well, most people are prone to what psychological researchers have called the better-than-average effect. For example, research has found most drivers believe they are more skilled and less risky than average drivers.
Most older motorists think they are better drivers than their peers, as do motorcyclists.
Most bungee jumpers think their own risk of injury is less than most other bungee jumpers.
Police officers overestimate their ability to detect lies and underestimate their own capacity to tell lies.
The better-than-average effect has also been found in studies involving engineers, athletes, college lecturers, poorly-performing students, and doctors.
Oh, and I’d better mention that research indicates psychotherapists are no different -- like everyone else, most of us think we’re better than average at our job.
Now, the better-than-average effect isn’t found across all domains. For example, an ambitious executive might say, “I have no problem admitting I’m below average at dancing; in fact, I’m a terrible dancer. I’m also pretty lousy at cooking”. Ask the same person if they are above-average at their job, however, and they are much more likely to answer “yes”.
That’s because people are much likelier to overestimate their abilities in an area that is personally important to them than in an area they deem to be unimportant.
And this brings me to the question of moral superiority.
In one recent study titled ‘The Illusion of Moral Superiority’, participants were asked to rate their own and others' moral character on a scale from 1 (low) to 7 (high). The participants consistently rated their own moral character as higher than that of others. ‘Virtually all’ participants ‘irrationally inflated their moral qualities’, the authors noted.
‘Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so’, they concluded. ‘Most people consider themselves paragons of virtue; yet few individuals perceive this abundance of virtue in others’.
The results weren’t surprising. After all, as the authors pointed out, moral superiority is an ‘especially potent’ illusion’, with research consistently finding that people are especially likely to rate themselves as more moral than others.
We are particularly motivated to think of ourselves as moral and virtuous, even more so than other desirable characteristics. For example, in one very large study involving 188,000 people across 11 European countries, people were more likely to choose words such as “faithful” and “honest” when describing themselves than other positive terms such as “clever” and “wise”. Another study found that even people incarcerated in prison saw themselves as more moral and kinder than law-abiding citizens.
It’s nice to think well of ourselves, of course, but we need to be careful here. Like beauty, morality can be in the eye of the beholder.
Dr Ben Tappin, co-author of the aforementioned ‘Illusion of Moral Superiority’ study, gives the example of someone who cares deeply for their friends and family and would go to the ends of the earth for them, but doesn’t give a cent to foreign charity. And you might have another person who has spent their life donating money overseas, but who might not treat their family members very well.
Who is more moral? ‘It seems quite impossible to judge’, says Tappin, ‘and it’s just at the mercy of people’s preferences.’
We all have our own values and our own way of looking at things. Sometimes, we might disagree with the beliefs or actions of another person, but it’s not a good idea to automatically assume this disagreement is down to some kind of moral defect on their part.
Seeing others as morally inferior might make us feel better about ourselves, but it can breed cynicism and mistrust. Indeed, research has found people who see themselves as more virtuous are more likely to judge others’ actions as unethical and more likely to overestimate just how much immoral behaviour there is in society.
To repeat, it’s nice to think well of ourselves, but it’s also nice to think well of others. Most folks are trying their best, imperfect people living imperfect lives – just like you and me.
(First published in Southern Star on 2/2/2023)